How to co-lead a team
We don’t lead alone. We lead with others. The days of t he “Great Ma n ” theor y of leadership – where a lone leader rules over the masses from an ivory tower – are long gone.
Some of us quite l itera l l y l ead with another person – we co-lead a project, a team or an organisation with a peer. One study found that shared leadership is a useful predictor of an effective team. Other research suggests that shared leadership can also lead to greater team interaction, increased collaboration and coordination, as well as novel and more i nnovative solutions. But the arrangement can WHETHER WE ARE RECRUITED OR PROMOTED INTO A ROLE TO LEAD WITH SOMEONE ELSE, OR WE ACTIVELY BRING SOMEONE ON BOARD TO LEAD ALONGSIDE US, CO-LEADERSHIP IS A SKILL THAT MOST OF US NEED TO STRENGTHEN:
Share ownership of the goal but divide roles and responsibilities. Explore and understand each other’s strengths and expertise, then go through a detailed process of agreeing who is responsible for what. Research suggests that co-leadership is much more likely to be successful with clear differentiation.
Remember that co-leadership affects more than just the two of you. We tend to focus on how we navigate this relationship for ourselves, but it can be equally tricky for others to navigate “us”. Clients, leaders and especially the combined team can find co-leadership arrangements challenging, especially at first. Communicate your roles and responsibilities to others, and seek regular feedback.
Be first to reallocate praise for s uccesses a nd f i r s t t o pi ck up responsibility for failures. Whether others correctly or incorrectly assign success to you personally, praise your co-leader for any success. When easily become draining and frustrating if the relationship isn’t strong.
Successful co-leadership begins with commitment. When colleagues and I designed and facilitated the f irst collaborative t raining bet ween the police forces of t wo localities with a decades-long history of conflict, we had the opportunity to see co-leadership in its most powerful form. By not merely “putting the past aside” but focusing on a collaborative future, the leaders from each force ensured a successful training programme that rolled out in their communities. Their joint success was not only a result of their commitment to the programme and its objectives but also t heir visible commitment failures happen, own and address them together, regardless of your direct input into the situation.
Be open to renegotiating your roles based on changing circumstances and ambitions. Over time, our skills grow and we want to expand our leadership capacity. So a task that may once have been unappealing to your co-leader may eventually become a stretch goal that he would like to embrace. There are endless ways in which both you and your co-leader may want to change the dynamic of your relationship. Be open to these changes in your partner, and share your own evolving goals.
Recognise that you yourself may have the greatest i mpact on your co-leader’s experience of work. And that he has the same impact on yours. Honest conversations exploring the reality of this arrangement – what ’ s great, what ’ s challenging and what feels limiting or restrictive – may be emotional and, at times, uncomfortable. But the effort pays off. to one another, which ended with a relationship that would go on to affect countless others.
Investing time and energy into this co-leadership relationship beyond just the scope of your role will almost certainly make it a better one. It will also mean that, not only for the organisation but also for both of you personally, t wo heads really can be better than one. Rebecca Newton is a business psychologist, leadership adviser and visiting fellow in the department of management at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.